Review: Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

The life of the popular newspaper cartoonist between about 1915 and 1990 really was a rock star life, in a way that already seems a bit inconceivable to us today, much like being a star in a radio drama or on the vaudeville circuit seem like relics of a long-distant past. A major newspaper cartoonist like Chester Gould, Harold Gray, Charles Schulz or even Bill Watterson really was a rock star in his day. Read by millions of adults and children every day for their entire life, the newspaper strips created by these celebrities were as much a fixture in most peoples' lives as their family members or coworkers.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Dick  Tracy would fight his criminals and Orphan Annie would have her adventures; Lucy and Linus and Charlie Brown would explore the world and their quirks together, and Calvin would get into his crazy adventures with his anthropomorphic stuffed tiger. 

The best cartoonists gave their audiences exactly what they craved: endless variations on familiar themes. Tracy would face imminent death at the hands of a vicious and damaged arch-criminal. Lucy would taunt Charlie Brown and pull the football away just as he tried to kick it.

And Otto Soglow's Little King would have is boundlessly charming, wonderfully drawn, twist ending stories.

The Little King ran for over 40 years in hundreds of newspapers around the world, presenting endless variations on Soglow's own clever and entertaining themes.  The extremely clean cartooning line presented in this strip,  and the pantomime nature of many of these strips allowed the comic to be syndicated easily all around the world. 

Like all the great cartoonists of his era, Soglow was first and foremost a wonderful cartoonist. Quirky and idiosyncratic, possessed of a brilliant sense of design that is, to borrow some phrases from Ivan Brunetti's wonderful introduction, "sophisticated and goofy all at once";  "austere and playful"; "exquisitely timed, carefully structured pieces of machinery." Otto Soglow was thoroughly confident in himself -- and why shouldn't he be? Like the monarch whose life he portrayed, Otto Soglow was living like royalty on the pages of the newspaper comics page.

Once you settle into this generous and immaculate book (no surprise since it comes from the good folks at the Library of American Comics), and allow the world of the Little King to play out in all its infinite variations, you find yourself lost in a world of whimsy, of cleverness, of Soglow's specific and ingenious vision. It's a world of elegance and the commonplace man, of a king who wants just as much to be an ordinary person as an ordinary person would want to be the king.

It's a world of infinite variations on the same theme: who knew that there could be a series of strips centered on the idea of a windstorm blowing peoples' hats all around? In this book, Otto Soglow delivers several variations of that theme -- including one crucial strip that results in the change of the strip's name -- and the reader comes to smile with anticipation as he sees that theme come around again.

One of the wonderful surprises of this comic strip is that every strip brings the reader a surprise. At the beginning of each strip, the King and reader are presented with a situation -- the king is knighting a Lord; the King takes a secret passage in his castle; the king is captured and will be executed as a spy. And each strip ends with a twist at its end -- the king asks the new Lord for money; or the secret passage leads to a movie theatre; or see the execution strip below for the spy strip.

The Little King is compelling as much for what it doesn't do as for what it does. The king himself never speaks in these strips, but we feel like we know him well through his actions. We are never specifically introduced to the world in which this comic takes place, but we get a complex three-dimensional view of it through the looks we get at the ordinary people of the strip and the way that the king deals with people outside his country. I have no idea how much of this world was planned and how much was improvised, but it's a huge compliment to Soglow to say that I have no answer to that question because it all feels so organic.

This strip has an extremely timeless quality to it, but one of the most fascinating aspects of it is that there are so many times when real-world events are paralleled in the pages of this strip. There is a sequence of strips from 1941 that feature a second lead character, Ookle, the Dictator, who looks a bit like a bald Adolph Hitler.

I was fascinated by how the strip changed with Ookle involved in storylines and how the king would do what he could do in small ways to subvert Ookle -- see the strip below for a nice example of that meme. Ookle was a junkman before he became the dictator by winning a poker game, and the contrast between the two characters is wonderful. Unfortunately, though the editors include a handful of the Ookle strips, they don't include the strip where Ookle leaves the strip (if such a strip exists), and that leaves a bit of a hole in my enjoyment of this book.

This book actually feels a bit short despite its heft. Cartoon Monarch presents comic strips that date from 1933 to 1973, and there are some years that feel a bit sparsely represented. I can understand why LOAC and IDW chose a one-volume collection of this relatively obscure comic strip, but only 39 pages of the book's 400 pages present the entire output of the strip in the 1960s. That may have been a down time for the strip or it may not, but the decade feels woefully underrepresented in this collection. 

But that means that my biggest complaint about this book is that I wanted more Little King strips. This is a joyful and charming strip, a pure distillation of Soglow's view of the world, and an infinitely pleasing way to spend a few hours. It's over 400 pages of pure ingenuity and happiness, a celebration of Otto Soglow's magisterial cartooning and his brilliant command of the comics page. Soglow deserved to be king of the comics page, right alongside such legends as Chester Gould and Harold Gray. Otto Soglow was a rock star cartoonist who deserved his fame by producing wonderful work day after day, month after month, and year after year.

 


 

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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